Tuesday 30 June 2020

Crystal Swan [2018]

Harvard educated Darya Zhuk was based out of the US when she decided to take up filmmaking, and she accomplished that by going back to Belarus, her country of origin, for her quirky, colourful and perceptive directorial debut Crystal Swan. Set during the transition period of the 90s, Minsk here is an eccentric mishmash of its socialist past and its proto-capitalist present, and an oddball representation of that was achieved through a giant Lenin statue forming the backdrop in a nightclub playing electronic music. The movie’s strikingly captivating heroine is Velya (brilliantly brought to life by Alina Nasbullina) – a law graduate turned DJ – who loves her shocking blue wig, and has fallen trap to the lure of the ‘American Dream’. She craves to travel to Chicago, propelled by her love for house music, even though she has scant chances of securing a visa. Hence, she puts in a false telephone number in her application, to give the impression that she has a stable job here and thus a strong reason to come back. However, when she learns that the embassy will call on that number to verify her employment status, she must find a way to intercept that. As it turns out, the number belongs to a dysfunctional household in the countryside, and that the family is preparing for the marriage of their embittered eldest son (Ivan Mulin) who gets enticed by this aloof city girl. Woman’s agency, the desire for freedom, painful coming-of-age and poignant journey back home formed the film’s central themes. Interestingly, the deadpan irony of the working class making crystals which fetch absurd prices in Western Europe provided a salty commentary in how capital operates.

Director: Darya Zhuk
Genre: Drama/Social Drama
Language: Russian
Country: Belarus

Saturday 27 June 2020

The House That Jack Built [2018]

It’s rather bemusing to note that Danish provocateur Lars von Trier began the 2010s with a movie as haunting, wrenching and transcendental as Melancholia and ended it with one as inflammatory, grisly and brash as The House that Jack Built (one can say the same about the 2000s too which he’d begun with the bleakly beautiful Dancer in the Dark and ended with the daringly controversial Antichrist). What has remained unchanged, however, is his irrepressible penchant for provocations and cheeky subversion. Filled with disturbing themes, unsettling violence and misogyny, wildly digressive narrative, gallows humour, flamboyant stylistic insertions and biting self-reflexive commentary, the film’s bound to mesmerize and infuriate in equal measures; no wonder, on its premiere at Cannes – which was an event in itself given that he’d been declared persona non grata 6 years back – over 100 viewers walked out, while there was also a 10-minute standing ovation at the end. It’s structured as freewheeling, mock-serious and ironic conversations – mix of self-deprecating ruminations and deadpan philosophizing – between Jack (Matt Dillon), a demented sociopath and brutal serial killer with a love for architecture, and a man  he calls Verge (Bruno Ganz), who’s either the Roman poet Virgil’s amused ghost or Jack’s exasperated psychotherapist or perhaps his delusional conscience; and, over faux-intellectual discourses ranging from rationalizing his murders and the grand artistry behind them to Glenn Gould’s music and Nazi concentration camps, Jack recounts over flashbacks 5 of his vicious crimes – a cocky woman (Uma Thurman) he bludgeoned; a gullible widow he strangled; his unwitting girlfriend and her kids he executed; a stunning hooker (Riley Keough) he massacred; and his absurd scheme to murder 5 men with a single bullet.

Director: Lars von Trier
Genre: Drama/Psychological Horror/Black Comedy
Language: English
Country: Denmark

Friday 26 June 2020

The Third Murder [2017]

With the bleak, wintry crime drama The Third Murder – strikingly moody, seeped in fatalist atmosphere, awash with ambiguities, and filmed in muted monochromes shorn of life and joy – Kore-eda made a stunning detour vis-à-vis the gently absorbing family dramas he’s most associated with. Its stirring elements of familial bonds and dysfunctions, understated approach, and underlying empathy, nevertheless, did connect it back to his filmography despite the stylistic departures. The film begins on a violent note as we see a man brutally murdered by being bludgeoned on the head, followed by burning down of the corpse. The alleged perpetrator is Misumi (Kōji Yakusho) – that he served a long sentence on charges of another murder decades back, and has also confessed to this crime have made the death sentence a distinct possibility for him. Hence, defence lawyer Shigemori (Masaharu Fukuyama), who’s assigned to this case, begins his investigations with a sense of cynical resignation. However, the more he interacts with the enigmatic and strangely placid accused man who’s incredibly obtuse in his motives, and in turn delves into his tragically lonely existence, and also gets to know that he’d developed a poignant kinship with the victim’s forlorn teenaged daughter (Suzu Hirose), the astute lawyer starts getting a sense that this isn’t an open and shut case despite everyone’s wishes to close this quickly. Yakusho was terrific as the mild-mannered antihero, as were his interactions with Shigemori – often shot in close-ups with exquisite use of the glass partition. The poetic photography and the compelling low-key score added noirish sensibilities to this meditative, slow-burn exploration of the slippery nature of truth, complex moral quandary, societal apathy, and, ultimately, the vileness of capital punishment.

Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda
Genre: Crime Drama/Post-Noir/Legal Drama
Language: Japanese
Country: Japan

Thursday 25 June 2020

Confessions [2010]

Tetsuya Nakashima’s Confessions, adapted from Kanae Minato's bestselling novel, is a decidedly grim, discomfiting and nihilistic revenge thriller that blurred the line separating perpetrators and victims while portraying the irredeemability of its characters. However, while it was formally adventurous and thematically bold in creating a distinctive palette for its tale of well orchestrated cruelty and vengeance, where no one is innocent of wrongdoing, the extreme distancing effects created through hyper-stylization made it well nigh impossible to develop strong connects with the proceedings. The movie began with a long and intriguing prelude that immediately established the context and set the stage for what followed – viz. Yuko (Takako Matsu), a school teacher, sharing with her class of ill-mannered students in an eerily placid tone about her 4-year old daughter’s death by drowning, and her decision to personally exact revenge on the two kids who perpetuated this, as they’re otherwise protected by the country’s juvenile law. The two students, both extreme social recluses, are Shuya (Yukito Nishii), a sly, cocky and pathological sociopath desirous of garnering notoriety as a means to establish connect with his mother who’s abandoned him, and Naoki (Kaoru Fujiwara), an introverted boy who’s easily manipulated. The narrative, shot using gray-blue filters to accentuate the bleak tone, frequently intercut between the three characters to portray their dark confessions, psyches and motives as the two boys face the wrath of Yuko’s punishment. While its commentary on societal and parental complicity pushing the kids towards loneliness, alienation, self-obsession, wanton cruelty and delinquency was palpable, and the depiction was undeniably chilling, it was difficult not to be left tad cold by the film’s overly oppressive atmosphere, straight-jacketed characterizations and stylistic overindulgence.

Director: Tetsuya Nakashima
Genre: Thriller/Psychological Thriller/Revenge Thriller
Language: Japanese
Country: Japan

Sunday 21 June 2020

On the Beach at Night Alone [2017]

Hong Sang-soo’s poignant, delicate and melancholic film On the Beach at Night Alone is structured like two films rolled into one; however, unlike, say, Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, where the perspectives switched, or Tale of Cinema, which was split into disparate narratives, or Right Now, Wrong Then, where the same sequences were repeated differently, there was a clearer continuity here, albeit with various intertextual elements thrown in as always. And, while his works are usually always self-reflexive, this was especially personal given that Hong’s extramarital affair with actress-muse Kim Min-hee had caused media gossip leading to this film, and that was clearly alluded to throughout its length leading to a self-lacerating outburst near the end. The contemplative and relatively shorter 1st segment follows Young (Kim) hanging out with a pensive divorced lady (Seo Young-hwa) in Hamburg – while possibly awaiting her married lover – as they stroll around the local market, visit a musician bookseller, etc. In the emotionally volatile 2nd segment, Young, who’s a famous actress, floats around in a small town back in Korea, has rambling conversations over copious quantities of soju with old friends – a lovely older friend (Song Seon-mi), a gruff movie theatre manager (Kwon Hae-hyo), a cuckolded former flame (Jung Jae-young) – and spends solitary moments in the beach reminiscing her turbulent affair with a filmmaker. During the narrative switchover it wasn’t clear if the first part was a memory or segment from a film starring Young, while the climactic scene could potentially be a dream sequence – these intriguing meta elements, combined with a quintessentially freewheeling flow, lilting score, and Kim’s stunning, mercurial and wrenching performance, made this such a reflective, capricious and absorbing work.

Director: Hong Sang-soo
Genre: Drama/Romantic Drama
Language: Korean
Country: South Korea